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5th April 2021

People's Princess Visit

St Helena Hospice is remembering a special visit from Diana, Princess of Wales.

The people’s princess officially opened the Joan Tomkins day centre on 26th April 1988, where she captivated patients, hospice volunteers and staff, along with the hundreds gathered to catch a glimpse, as she smiled and shook hands with many.

Princess Diana visits St Helena Hospice

Among those in attendance was Robin Tomkins, the Frinton businessman who generously funded the day centre in memory of his wife, Joan. Robin remembers:

“My wife Joan died of cancer in 1985 and she had quite difficult last six months. I was very lucky I had the resources to give her the backup that was necessary. My sister in law was a trained nurse and Joan had a wonderful GP who called twice a day. We also had the support of a brilliant Macmillan nurse.

“My wife was anxious to die at home and we had the necessary resources that made her comfortable.

“I realised how difficult it was for people less well resourced to deal with the situation. After Joan’s death, I wished to do something to help less fortunate people who had been on a similar journey.

“I got in touch with the Macmillan nurse and said, what could I do to help people? She said what they really wanted at the hospice was a day centre where people could go to while they were having problems and also to give support to families.

“I went to see the chairman of the hospice, Chris Holmes, and together we agreed on the provision of the day centre. I then went to Alan Hills, the building contractor, and he designed and built the day centre.

“The day Princess Diana opened it was a memorable day, all my family were there, my children and my grandchildren. It was very well attended and Princess Diana was very, very good with the patients. She sat down with them and had empathy with them. Extremely good.

“There were people sitting either side of her reading their poetry to her. She had a great gift with people.

“I was delighted to see the day centre being used, it gave me a warm feeling. I did something good for a change! I was a property developer; nobody loves a property developer!

“The heart of the hospice is the people working there, the volunteers, the nurses; they have a very difficult job. It is all about people and they are the most brilliant people there, they are dedicated, they do a very difficult job. I couldn't speak highly enough for them.

“Buildings are nothing else but inanimate, but the staff are absolutely wonderful.”

Diana, Princess of Wales, spent half an hour inside the Joan Tomkins day centre chatting to patients, volunteers and staff. 

Pearl Wheat (pictured), who attended the day centre once a week, presented the royal visitor with a selection of poems about life and death written by patients and relatives.

After spending time inside the day centre, the people’s princess emerged to meet the crowd lining the driveway up to the hospice inpatient unit, before going inside to meet patients and staff.

Princess Diana and Pearl Wheat
Princess Diana and John Garbett

Nurse John Garbett (pictured) recalls:

“I was in the nursing station with all the girls around me and Princess Diana came in and made a beeline straight for me. 

"She came up to me and said ‘good morning’, and I said good morning and she said ‘how do you keep all this lot under control’ and I said with great difficulty ma’am, with great difficulty.”

Stories of people involved with St Helena Hospice at its very beginning are being recorded and preserved, along with historic photographs and film clips, for an exhibition and an online archive project supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund thanks to National Lottery players.

To share your story and photos, in the first instance email stories@sthelena.org.uk or call St Helena Hospice’s marketing team on 01206 931 464, for information on how to contribute to the project.  

National Lottery Heritage Fund

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